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March 16, 2011

How to improve the management of legal teams (Part 1 of 4)

When lawyers participate in our Certified Legal Project Manager™ program, one of the topics that they are most interested in discussing is how to manage teams.  What should you do with the associate who insists on turning over every rock?  Or with the partner who consistently fails to meet deadlines?  How often should teams meet?  How much supervision can and should the relationship partner provide?

There is a vast amount of literature on how to manage teams in other professions.  Business schools offer entire courses with names like Authentic Leadership Development (Harvard MBA) and Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership (Wharton MBA).

The literature on managing legal teams is much thinner, especially when you concentrate, as we do, on the kinds of teams that large law firms juggle to meet clients’ ever-shifting needs.  Until recently, many partners have given little thought to managing these teams more efficiently, in part because the billable hour model provided little incentive for efficiency.

But these days legal clients ARE demanding efficiency, and so lawyers have become more interested in improving the way they manage teams.

Participants in our certification program review several key readings from project management textbooks, then analyze the action items that could have the greatest impact on their personal teams.  One of the chapters they read was written by Paul Dinsmore for the third edition of his AMA Handbook of Project Management

Dinsmore’s chapter includes a very useful questionnaire to help assess whether a particular group needs to improve its teamwork.  Each member of a team rates themselves on a scale from 1 (low) to 5 (high) on 15 items including “Clarity of goals,” “Individuals’ concern for team responsibility as opposed to own personal interests,” and “Quality of listening abilities on part of team members” (p. 156). 

They then add up their 15 ratings, and consider the implications of a total score that falls between 15 and 75.  The lower the score, the more urgent it is to work on teamwork.  Indeed, according to Dinsmore, a score of 30 or less implies that “improving teamwork should be the absolute top priority for your group.”

In the same chapter, Dinsmore also outlines “Ten Rules of Team Building” to help people improve:

1. Identify what drives your team
2. Get your own act together
3. Understand the game
4. Evaluate the competition
5. Pick your players and adjust your team
6. Identify and develop inner group leaders
7. Get the team in shape
8. Motivate the players
9. Develop plans
10. Control, evaluate, and improve

This short series of posts will briefly discuss each of these ten rules, so you can consider which might be useful to you.

You have undoubtedly considered some of these concepts in the past.  But when you review Dinsmore’s list and ask yourself how it can help you increase efficiency, you may come up with some new ideas that will help you provide more value to clients.

Rule #1: Identify what drives your team

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

What motivates your team to work together?  Is it a deadline, the inherent challenge of the legal matter, the relationship partner’s inspiration, the rewarding feeling of collaborating with people you enjoy working with, a chance to set a new legal precedent, the desire to beat a competitor, insecurities about one’s job, the prospect of piling up billable hours to meet an annual quota, another factor, or a combination of some or all of the above? Knowing what is driving your team can help you manage its members.  If you talk to people about this, you may be surprised to learn what is driving different team members.

Ultimately, team members must motivate and empower themselves – the leader can inspire, but not motivate them. Your job is to create an environment to help team members motivate and empower themselves.

In the planning stages, brainstorm with your team members to come up with common goals to build a sense of community and ownership in the project. Set up ground rules for your team and for meetings, and try to get buy-in to the common goals from all members.

In the project scoping document, you (and others) should specify the scope and the constraints of the project as clearly as possible. This will help team members track milestones and check-ins along the way.

Encourage team members to share their ideas and opinions. When you use people’s ideas, give them credit.  Remember: the best ideas usually arise from diverse teams interacting and brainstorming together.  Conversely, few new slants or approaches arise from leaders who fail to harvest the richness of different personalities and perspectives. 

It is very important for your team to know that you are listening to them.

Next week’s post will discuss more rules from Dinsmore’s list.


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I am now on managing people for 2 years. Too young experience wise. But I think the principles and strategies presented here though this is for the lawyers (I am from education sector), are still applicable in my department. I learned a lot from this post.

Thank you!

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